Islamophobia: What’s in a Word?

By Will Furtado

The French writer Michel Houellebecq, best known for his best sellers ‘Atomised’ and ‘Platform’, claimed in a recent Paris Review interview that ‘Islamophobia’ is not a kind of racism. This happened while promoting his new novel ‘Submission’ which hypothesizes a France led by a Muslim government. The novel had already kicked off Islamophobia rows when it was released before the Charlie Hebdo attacks and it has now grown more salient in the discussion surrounding Islamophobia. I have not read the book but the author himself in the same interview says he does use fear tactics regarding Islam in France in his novels.

‘Islamophobia’ – the word is being pronounced across the world but not many seem to know exactly what it means, its connection to racism and its usage as an excuse to silence critics of Islam.

The French author had previously faced trial on charges of inciting racial hatred after calling religions ‘dumb’ and Islam ‘the dumbest’ of them all but the charges were later cleared. From an unbiased point of view his comments were not racist, but things are not that simple as to say that ‘Islamophobia’ has nothing to do with racism.

The definition of ‘Islamophobia’ as a term is still divisive as there is no consensus on its definition and limitations. That means that people use it in an arbitrary way (Houellebecq included) according to the definition they believe to be right. And while being an ‘Islamophobe’ doesn’t automatically mean being racist; racists often use the word to justify their racist remarks.

The popular usage of the term is relatively recent, and is sensitive to geographical and cultural settings. The term itself was coined in a 1996 report produced by the Runnymede Trust, a UK-based race equality think-tank. This report’s definition of ‘Islamophobia’ is currently the most accepted Europe-wide – ‘an outlook or world-view involving an unfounded dread and dislike of Muslims, which results in practices of exclusion and discrimination’. So this definition (note, before 9/11) already relates to discrimination. That is, phobia (from the Greek phobos fear) which means: a persistent, abnormal, and irrational fear of a specific thing or situation that compels one to avoid it, despite the awareness and reassurance that it is not dangerous – is only one part of the definition.

But despite this definition the term is still weak and part of that weakness is that it was firstly used within the British social framework and therefore doesn’t properly account for any other attitudes towards Islam; attitudes in other countries and attitudes that have been transforming. After 9/11 the term has been used throughout the whole world without a global consensus on its meaning. And the lack of consensus on the scope and definition leaves the doors open for anyone to use the term to back up any personal agendas. ‘Islamophobia’ can take many forms, depending on the person using the term. Furthermore, it can possibly be stretched to envelop a fear of other characteristics such as Muslim names, Muslim attire and anything else that can be perceived as ‘Muslim’.

Other critics also argue that the term attempts to dismiss any sort of criticism of Islam, which is what happened in the case of Houellebecq and it took a court case to make clear that criticising Islam is not racism. British authors R. Miles and M. Brown who published ‘Racism’ in 2003 wrote that portrayals of Islam and Muslims as the national ‘other’, e.g. Pakistani and Algerian migrants in Britain and France respectively, significantly interacts with racism, although ‘Islamophobia’ itself is not racism. But they also argue that ‘the existence of different “Islamophobias” does not invalidate the concept of “Islamophobia” any more than the existence of different racisms invalidates the concept of racism’. So despite the fact that ‘Islamophobia’ might not translate directly to racism we can’t also dismiss the fact that it often does.

The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) seems to be much clearer. Its definition of ‘Islamophobia’ is based on the Runnymede Trust’s report but it does point at a plausible racial element: ‘Islamophobia’ is ‘the fear of or prejudiced viewpoint towards Islam, Muslims and matters pertaining to them. Whether it takes the shape of daily forms of racism and discrimination or more violent forms, Islamophobia is a violation of human rights and a threat to social cohesion’.

This definition draws direct parallels to another complex case – Judaism – and whether it is a race or can be treated as a race, when and by whom. Cora Døving at the Norwegian Center for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities asserts that there is a link between anti-Semitism in pre-Nazi Europe and ‘Islamophobia’ today. She cites that ‘among the concerns are imagined threats of minority growth and domination, threats to traditional institutions and customs, skepticism of integration, threats to secularism, fears of sexual crimes, fears of misogyny, fears based on historical cultural inferiority, hostility to modern Western Enlightenment values’. But what are Western values? Some might say freedom of speech but how can we talk about freedom of speech when in some European countries it is a crime to deny the Holocaust or to wear religious attire in schools? Even Charlie Hebdo fired the veteran French cartoonist Maurice Sinet in 2008 for making an allegedly anti-Semitic remark. Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that published caricatures of the Prophet in 2005, reportedly rejected cartoons mocking Christ because they would ‘provoke an outcry’ and proudly declared it would ‘in no circumstances… publish Holocaust cartoons’. And more recently David Cameron called for a ban on ‘non-violent extremist’ organisations and a restriction on associated individuals from appearing on TV, social media, or other public platforms. Does that mean that British Hollywood-actor-turned-social-campaigner Russell Brand could be legally silenced?

Recently in Germany, of all places, there has been a resurgence of this anti-other sentiment. A movement called Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) has been rallying the streets of (mostly east) Germany by the thousands (up to 25,000 according to the Guardian) uttering their discontent with the proliferation of Islam, although the area in which the movement came from and is the strongest only 0.2% of the population is Muslim. But when the individual protesters are questioned their concerns amount to ‘seeing too many Turkish people on the street’, or that ‘Africans sell drugs’, or that ‘refugees are parasites’. So these protesters are in fact using ‘Islamophobia’ to back up their antagonism towards all foreigners. On the day of one of many Pegida protests Khaled Idris Bahray, a 20-year old Eritrean refugee, was found murdered on the street not far from the flat where he lived with others. Three days before the incident a Swastika was daubed on the men’s second floor apartment. It was accompanied by the slogan “We’ll get you all”. It would be incorrect to blame a Pegida protester but to refuse to see a connection between the Pegida sentiment and these kind of attacks is negligent at best. Even if we stuck strictly to the Runnymede Trust’s definition there is no denying of racism in movements such as Pegida in Germany.

Much of the ‘Islamophobia’ discourse is also adopted by the media with its scaremongering tactics or plain ignorance – for instance Jihad is not a terrorist attack as the Daily Mail often implies, but a spiritual or physical struggle against the enemies of Islam.

We can also talk about racialising Islam through the depiction of Muslims with very specific stereotypical physical characteristics, which are mostly Middle-Eastern/North African: long hooked noses, brown skin; seen at least from the Charlie Hebdo caricatures. And of course if most of the Muslim population in countries like the UK or France are non-white, the divorce of race and Islam is highly improbable (at least in those countries).

As for the case of Houellebecq it serves him well that the word ‘Islamophobia’ is not seen as racist, obviously because as a self-confessed Islam antagonist, he doesn’t want to be seen as a racist, especially now that he’s published a novel about a France that adopts Islam as the national religion. Therefore he has many reasons to be biased towards denying that ‘Islamophobia’ is a form of racism, even if he’s not a racist himself, which was proved in court. I’ve read some of his novels, which are crude, witty and filled with characters who happen to be very bitter, a little like the author himself. He also brushes off the racism accusations aimed at him by stating that racism is elementary, whereas ‘Islamophobia’ isn’t. But as explored up to this point, there is nothing simple about racism or ‘Islamophobia’.

There are however proposed alternatives to the term, including ‘Islamoprejudice’ – which stresses discrimination; or ‘Anti-Muslimism’ – which emphasizes the antagonism against Muslims as people and not as a religion; or plainly criticism of Islam – which stresses the analysis of the Quran. But regardless of the chosen term, discussion must carry on so that we know when and if we are veering towards racism while debating Islam, or if we’re just using the word to halt criticism.

© Johny Pitts

© Johny Pitts

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Afropean, writer, photographer, broadcaster, music geek.

1 Comment

  • Reply May 28, 2015

    Leo Le Pallec

    Very interesting article.

    However, there is one factual mistake concerning Charlie Hebdo : “racialising Islam through the depiction of Muslims with very specific stereotypical physical characteristics, which are mostly Middle-Eastern/North African: long hooked noses, brown skin; seen at least from the Charlie Hebdo caricatures.”

    Actually, the various cartoonist of Charlie Hebdo have very different drawing styles. Cartoonists like Cabu and Honoré used to have a rather realistic style, but cartoonists like Charb, Tignous, Riss and Luz do not (Wolinsky did both, depending on the context). I’ve seen a lot of criticism of the depiction of muslims by the latter as racsit stereotyping, but in reality Muslims in Charlie Hebdo are drawn in the same “ugly” way all their other stock characters are. If you want to convince yourself, compare the way Tignous, Charb and Riss draw “stock muslims” and “stock white french males”.

    Remark : Cartoons of famous people and public figures are more varied and less exaggerated, because readers are expected to be able to recognise them. For example, compare how Charb used to draw all his stock chracaters exactly the same way (ugly, huged crooked noses, rather fat, yellow skinned) whether or not they were white french or immigrants, poor or rich, Catholics or Muslims etc …. However, when drawing a famous person (like the french president or ministers) he would try being (a ittle bit) more realistic.

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